Google’s Game Builder turns building multiplayer games into a game

Google’s Area 120 team, the company’s in-house incubator for some of its more experimental projects, today launched Game Builder, a free and easy to use tool for PC and macOS users who want to build their own 3D games without having to know how to code. Game Builder is currently only available through Valve’s Steam platform, so you’ll need an account there to try it.

After a quick download, Game Builder asks you about what screen size you want to work on and then drops you right into the experience after you tell it whether you want to start a new project, work on an existing project or try out some sample projects. These sample projects include a first-person shooter, a platformer and a demo of the tool’s card system for programming more complex interactions.

The menu system and building experience take some getting used to and isn’t immediately intuitive, but after a while, you’ll get the hang of it. By default, the overall design aesthetic clearly draws some inspiration from Minecraft, but you’re pretty free in what kind of game you want to create. It does not strike me as a tool for getting smaller children into game programming since we’re talking about a relatively text-heavy and complex experience.

To build more complex interactions, you use Game Builder’s card-based visual programming system. That’s pretty straightforward, too, but also takes some getting used to. Google says building a 3D level is like playing a game. There’s some truth in that, in that you are building inside the game environment, but it’s not necessarily an easy game either.

One cool feature here is that you can also build multiplayer games and even create games in real-time with your friends.

Traditionally, drag-and-drop game builders feel pretty limited. The Area 120 team is trying to overcome this by also letting you use JavaScript to go beyond some of the pre-programmed features. Google is also betting on Poly, its library of 3D objects, to give users lots of options for creating and designing their levels.

It’s no secret that Google is taking games pretty seriously these days, now that it is getting ready to launch its Stadia game streaming service later this year. There doesn’t seem to be a connection between the two just yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Game Builder on Stadia, too.

Telegram faces DDoS attack in China… again

The popular encrypted messaging service Telegram is once again being hit with a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack in Asia as protestors in Hong Kong take to the streets.

For the last several days, Hong Kong has been overrun with demonstrators protesting a new law that would put the municipality more directly under the control of mainland China’s authoritarian government.

One of the tools that organizers have turned to is the encrypted messaging service, Telegram, and other secure messaging technologies as they look to evade surveillance measures by government officials.

Telegram first commented on the attack via Twitter roughly 17 hours ago in the late afternoon on Wednesday in Hong Kong.

The company went on to describe a distributed denial of service attack as when “your servers get GADZILLIONS of garbage requests which stop them from processing legitimate requests. Imagine that an army of lemmings just jumped the queue at McDonald’s in front of you – and each is ordering a whopper,” according to Telegram. “The server is busy telling the whopper lemmings they came to the wrong place – but there are so many of them that the server can’t even see you to try and take your order.”

This isn’t the first time that someone has tried to take down Telegram at a time when China was experiencing significant unrest. Four years ago, a similar attack struck the company’s service, just as China was initiating a crackdown on human rights lawyers in the country.

An article in the Hong Kong Free Press described the situation on the mainland, where the company’s web version of its app was blocked from servers in Beijing, Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, Shenzhen, and Yunnan.

At the time, a lawyer involved in human rights cases was made to confess on state television about his involvement in the malfeasance and lawyers’ use of Telegram to hide messages from surveillance.

According to the state-run newspaper China Daily, lawyers were using the Telegram app for “attacks on the [Communist] Party and government.”

At the time of the last attack, Telegram and its chief executive, Pavel Durov did not comment on who was to blame for the denial of service attacks.

Now, the outspoken chief executive isn’t mincing any words. “IP addresses coming mostly from China,” Durov tweeted. “Historically, all state actor-sized DDoS (200-400 Gb/s of junk) we experienced coincided in time iwth protests in Hong Kong (coordinated on @telegram). This case was not an exception.”

 

We won’t be listening to music in a decade according to Vinod Khosla

Depending on who you ask, the advantage of technology based on artificial or machine intelligence could be a topsy-turvy funhouse mirror world – even in some very fundamental ways.

“I actually think 10 years from now, you won’t be listening to music,” is a thing venture capitalist Vinod Khosla said on stage today during a fireside chat at Creative Destruction Lab’s second annual Super Session event.

Instead, he believes we’ll be listening to custom song equivalents that are automatically designed specifically for each individual, and tailored to their brain, their listening preferences and their particular needs.

Khosla noted that AI-created music is already making big strides – and it’s true that it’s come a long way in the past couple of years, as noted recently by journalist Stuart Dredge writing on Medium.

As Dredge points out, one recent trend is the rise of mood or activity based playlists on Spotify and channels on YouTube. There are plenty of these types of things where the artist, album and song name are not at all important, or even really surfaced. Not to mention that there’s a big financial incentive for an entity like Spotify to prefer machine-made alternatives, since it could help alleviate or eliminate the licensing costs that severely limit their ability to make margin on their primary business of serving up music to customers.

AI-generated chart toppers and general mood music is one thing, but a custom soundtrack specific to every individual is another. It definitely sidesteps the question of what happens to the communal aspect of music when everyone’s music-replacing auditory experience is unique to the person. Guess we’ll find out in ten years.

Facebook will not remove deepfakes of Mark Zuckerberg, Kim Kardashian and others from Instagram

Facebook will not remove the faked videos featuring Mark Zuckerberg, Kim Kardashian and President Donald Trump from Instagram, the company said in a statement.

Earlier today, Vice News reported on the existence of videos created by the artists Bill Posters and Daniel Howe and video and audio manipulation companies including CannyAIRespeecher and Reflect. 

The work, featured in a site-specific installation in the UK as well as circulating in video online, was the first test of Facebook’s content review policies since the company’s decision not to remove a manipulated video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received withering criticism from Democratic political leadership.

“We have said all along, poor Facebook, they were unwittingly exploited by the Russians,” Pelosi said in an interview with radio station KQED, quoted by The New York Times. “I think they have proven — by not taking down something they know is false — that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election.”

After the late May incident Facebook’s Neil Potts testified before a smorgasbord of international regulators in Ottawa about deep fakes, saying the company would not remove a video of Mark Zuckerberg . This appears to be the first instance testing the company’s resolve.

“We will treat this content the same way we treat all misinformation on Instagram . If third-party fact-checkers mark it as false, we will filter it from Instagram’s recommendation surfaces like Explore and hashtag pages,” said an Instagram spokesperson in an email to TechCrunch.

The videos appear not to violate any Facebook policies, which means that they will be subject to the treatment any video containing misinformation gets on any of Facebook’s platforms. So the videos will be blocked from appearing in the Explore feature and hashtags won’t work with the offending material.

Facebook already uses image detection technology to find content that has been debunked by its third-party fact checking program on Instagram. When misinformation is only present on Instagram the company is testing the ability to promote links into the fact-checking product on Facebook.

“Spectre interrogates and reveals many of the common tactics and methods that are used by corporate or political actors to influence people’s behaviours and decision making,” said Posters in an artist’s statement about the project. “In response to the recent global scandals concerning data, democracy, privacy and digital surveillance, we wanted to tear open the ‘black box’ of the digital influence industry and reveal to others what it is really like.”

Facebook’s consistent decisions not to remove offending content stands in contrast with YouTube which has taken the opposite approach in dealing with manipulated videos and other material that violate its policies.

YouTube removed the Pelosi video and recently took steps to demonetize and remove videos from the platform that violated its policies of hate speech — including a wholesale purge of content about Nazism.

These issues take on greater significance as the U.S. heads into the next Presidential election in 2020.

“In 2016 and 2017, the UK, US and Europe witnessed massive political shocks as new forms of computational propaganda employed by social media platforms, the ad industry, and political consultancies like Cambridge Analytica [that] were exposed by journalists and digital rights advocates,” said Howe, in a statement about his Spectre project. “We wanted to provide a personalized experience that allows users to feel what is at stake when the data taken from us in countless everyday actions is used in unexpected and potentially dangerous ways.”

Perhaps, the incident will be a lesson to Facebook in what’s potentially at stake as well.

 

Google Assistant comes to Waze navigation app

Ever since Google acquired Waze back in 2013, features from each have been slowly making their way back and forth between it and Google Maps – and today Waze gets a big upgrade with Google Assistant integration, which means you can use the smart voice companion within the app.

Google Assistant in Waze will provide access to your usual Assistant features, like playback of music and podcasts, but it’ll also offer access to many Waze-specific abilities, including letting you asking it to report traffic conditions, or specifying that you want to avoid tolls when routing to your destination.

Google has done a good job of rolling out support for Assistant in its own Android Auto in-car software, and even brought it to Google Maps on Apple’s competing CarPlay system earlier this year. The benefits of having Assistant work natively within Waze are many, but the number one might be its potential to reduce distractions while on the road.

Waze remains a top choice among drivers, and anecdotally most Uber and Lyft drivers I encounter still swear by its supremacy over the competition, including Google’s other own-branded Maps solution.

Google Assistant will be available via a roll-out starting today in the U.S., in English only to start and on Android smartphones. Expect that availability to expand over time.

Tinder adds sexual orientation and gender identity to its profiles

Tinder is adding information about sexual orientation and gender identity to its profiles.

The company worked with the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD on changes to its dating app to make it more inclusive.

Users who want to edit or add more information about their sexual orientation can now simply edit their profile. When a Tinder user taps on the “orientation” selection they can choose up to three terms that describe their sexual orientation. Those descriptions can either be private or public, but will likely be used to inform matches on the app.

Tinder has also updated the onboarding experience for new users so that they can include their sexual orientation as soon as they sign up for the dating app.

Tinder is also giving users more control over how they order matches. In the “Discovery Preferences” field Tinderers can choose to see people of the same orientation first.

The company said this is a first step in its efforts to be more inclusive. The company will continue to work with GLAAD to refine its products and is making the new features available in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Ireland, India, Australia and New Zealand throughout June.

 

Firefox gets enhanced tracking protection, desktop password manager and more

It’s no secret that Mozilla sees privacy as a differentiating feature for its revitalized Firefox browser. Today, the Firefox team is launching one of its broadest set of releases that aim to keep advertisers and others from following you across the web, while also making it harder for Facebook to track you. In addition, the organization is launching a desktop version of its password manager and some improvements to its Firefox Monitor data breach notification service.

“This past year, we’ve seen tech companies talk a big game about privacy as they’re realizing that, after several global scandals, people feel increasingly vulnerable,” Firefox SVP Dave Camp writes in today’s announcement, explaining the organization’s reasoning for today’s update. “It’s unfortunate that this shift had to happen in order for tech companies to take notice. At Firefox, we’re doing more than that. We believe that in order to truly protect people, we need to establish a new standard that puts people’s privacy first.”

The launch of Enhanced Tracking Protection, which allows you to keep third-party trackers and cookies from following you around the web, doesn’t come as a surprise. Mozilla has been talking about its new anti-tracking measures for a while. Previously, it offered a similar feature, but that was restricted to private windows, which was useful — and probably a good way for Mozilla to test these new capabilities — but far from comprehensive. For new users, Enhanced Tracking Protection will now be on by default, while existing users will either have to enable it manually for now or wait for Mozilla to turn it on for them in the near future.

In the browser, you’ll see these new features in the form of a new set of controls in the settings menu, as well as by clicking on the new shield icon in the URL bar. In its standard setting, which is the default, Enhanced Tracking Protection will block all third-party tracking cookies, based on the Disconnect list. You can also opt for a strict setting, which may break some sites, or opt for your own custom settings, too.

While it’s not directly built into the browser, Mozilla also today launched an updated version of its Facebook container extension that now allows you to also put Facebook share and like buttons into the container and disable them by default. That way, Facebook won’t be able to build a useful a shadow profile of you when you are locked out (or not even a Facebook user).

With today’s announcements, Mozilla is also expanding its Lockbox password manager to the desktop. Until now, Lockbox only existed as a set of mobile apps, but Mozilla launched a Firefox desktop extension, too. It’s also changing the name to Lockwise. It’s a pretty straightforward password manager experience, though, at least for the time being, notably near not as fully features as Dashlane, 1Password, LastPass or similar options.

To round out today’s set of announcements, Mozilla is also launching a new dashboard for Firefox Monitor, its tool that lets you check whether your email addresses popped up in any data breaches and set alerts for any future breaches. Monitor now features a dashboard that lets you see which email addresses you are monitoring and which ones have likely been compromised.

 

The Slack origin story

Let’s rewind a decade.

It’s 2009. Vancouver, Canada.

Stewart Butterfield, known already for his part in building Flickr, a photo-sharing service acquired by Yahoo in 2005, decided to try his hand — again — at building a game. Flickr had been a failed attempt at a game called Game Neverending followed by a big pivot. This time, Butterfield would make it work.

To make his dreams a reality, he joined forces with Flickr’s original chief software architect Cal Henderson, as well as former Flickr employees Eric Costello and Serguei Mourachov, who like himself, had served some time at Yahoo after the acquisition. Together, they would build Tiny Speck, the company behind an artful, non-combat massively multiplayer online game.

Years later, Butterfield would pull off a pivot more massive than his last. Slack, born from the ashes of his fantastical game, would lead a shift toward online productivity tools that fundamentally change the way people work.

Glitch is born

In mid-2009, former TechCrunch reporter-turned-venture-capitalist M.G. Siegler wrote one of the first stories on Butterfield’s mysterious startup plans.

“So what is Tiny Speck all about?” Siegler wrote. “That is still not entirely clear. The word on the street has been that it’s some kind of new social gaming endeavor, but all they’ll say on the site is ‘we are working on something huge and fun and we need help.’”

Siegler would go on to invest in Slack as a general partner at GV, the venture capital arm of Alphabet .

“Clearly this is a creative project,” Siegler added. “It almost sounds like they’re making an animated movie. As awesome as that would be, with people like Henderson on board, you can bet there’s impressive engineering going on to turn this all into a game of some sort (if that is in fact what this is all about).”

After months of speculation, Tiny Speck unveiled its project: Glitch, an online game set inside the brains of 11 giants. It would be free with in-game purchases available and eventually, a paid subscription for power users.

Password manager Dashlane raises $110M in Series D, adds CMO

Password manager maker Dashlane has raised $110 million in its latest round of funding, the company said Thursday.

The company said Sequoia Capital led the Series D round, with partner Jim Goetz joining the board. Dashlane also said former Lyft executive Joy Howard was appointed as its new chief marketing officer and will start in August.

Dashlane said it will invest its latest funds back into its core product and will focus on addressing the needs of its consumer and business customers.

Chief executive Emmanuel Schalit said the company is “only scratching the surface” of its security opportunities.

“Billions of people and millions of businesses around the world feel the pain of digital identity – from breaches to stolen identities and the nuisance of remembering passwords,” said Schalit.

“With this new capital and the addition of Joy to our leadership team, we have the resources to increase our product leadership, grow the team, and build the brand that will define the future of digital identity protection,” he added.

Password managers have become all the rage in recent years following a spate of credential stuffing attacks, where hackers take breached usernames and passwords from sites and reuse them on other site accounts. By storing passwords in a single place protected by a master password or a biometric — such as a fingerprint — users can take their strong and uniquely generated passwords with them wherever they go.

Dashlane has raised over $185 million to date.

SoundCloud buys artist distribution platform Repost Network

The past year has seen Spotify embark on a series of acquisitions to beef up its service, particularly on podcast content. Now it is the turn of SoundCloud, another European music startup — albeit one that had lost its way in recent years — to go deal-making: the Berlin-based company has picked up Repost Network, a service that helps artists get the most out of SoundCloud.

The deal is undisclosed and it actually was announced last week, although it was not widely reported — perhaps an anecdotal sign of SoundCloud’s position as a relative outsider in today’s streaming market.

Once a pioneer of online distribution for artists, it has watched Sweden-headquartered Spotify takes its service global with a total audience of over 200 million monthly listeners. The competition includes services from Apple and Google as well as the likes of Pandora, Deezer and Jay-Z-owned Tidal.

Soundcloud had its come-to-Jesus-moment some 18 months ago when it raised a $169.5 million Series F fund led by New York investment bank Raine Group and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek.

That deal, announced in August 2017, was very much kiss-of-life that saved SoundCloud from bankruptcy — just a month earlier, it laid off 40 percent of its staff to slash costs. The investment also saw a change at the top as former Vimeo CEO Kerry Trainor replaced co-founder Alex Ljung as CEO. The new money took SoundCloud to nearly $470 million raised, and the pre-money valuation was said to be $150 million — down from a previous of high of $700 million from previous rounds.

Still, things have progressed enough for this acquisition, which is SoundCloud’s second ever. The company said the purchase will enable its top artists to access Repost Network’s tools, which include streaming distribution, analytics dashboards and content protection.

That restructuring, painful as it was, looks to have put the focus on the fundamentals. Filings from the company indicate that its revenue grew 80 percent year-on-year to reach €90.7 million ($102 million) in 2017, while losses narrowed by 27 percent to reach €51.4 million, or $58 million. Those results are from the beginning of Trainor’s tenure, we’ll have to wait on its newest filings to get a clearer picture of how things are going.

SoundCloud’s first acquisition was back in 2012 when it paid $10 million purchase of Instinctiv, a music management startup.